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The surprising side-effect of calling men by their surnames

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Emily Reynolds
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Using surnames makes people sound more professional, a study has found.

Referring to someone by their surname makes them seem more professional and accomplished, a new study has found – and it might be contributing to gender inequality.

In a study published in the journal PNAS,  a team from Cornell University found that men are twice as likely to be described by their surname in professional settings such as science, literature and politics.

If you’re referred to by your surname, you’re also more likely to be judged as deserving of a career award, the team also found. 

Referring to famous or eminent people by their surnames is common – just think of Shakespeare or Darwin. But men are far more likely to be described in this way; Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling are just three women we refer to by their full names. 

This has a significant impact. 

“Researchers referred to by surname are judged as more famous and eminent,” they write. “They are consequently seen as higher status and more deserving of eminence-related benefits and awards – for instance, scientists referred to by surname were seen as 14% more deserving of a National Science Foundation career award.”

The team gathered some of their data via 4,500 reviews on Rate my Professor – a site where academics are rated by their students – where they found that male academics were 56% more likely to be referred to by their surname. 

They also conducted seven other studies to analyse the way women and men were referred to in other areas including science, politics and the arts, where their findings were similar.  

“We found that this simple difference in reference affects judgement of eminence, with participants judging those professionals described by surname as more eminent,” the authors wrote. 

“This gender bias may contribute to the gender gap in perceived eminence as well as in actual recognition and may partially explain the persistent state of women’s underrepresentation in high-status fields, including science, technology, engineering, and maths.”

Images: Kaitlyn Baker / Unsplash / Getty 

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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